Valley to see a brief calm before next storms

March 20, 2011 

If weather forecasters are right and today provides a respite from recent storms, it might not be for long.

The sunshine expected today will be just the calm before more storms hit the Valley, still wringing out from record rainfall Sunday that flooded streets, triggered mudslides, felled trees and cut off power.

Over a 24-hour period ending Sunday night, 1.82 inches of rain was measured in Fresno, surpassing the rainfall record for any first day of spring. The previous mark of 1.22 inches was set in 1893.

The next major storm is expected to arrive this afternoon, but it should taper off to scattered showers by Wednesday and Thursday. Yet another storm should blow in Thursday night through Friday.

The two computer models the weather service uses for long-range forecasts don't agree on what will happen after Friday.

"One says the storm will slow down Friday but stay through Saturday," said meteorologist Gary Sanger. "The other one says it will kick out of here."

Since Friday, when the storm system arrived, Fresno has received 2.07 inches of rain. That brings the season rainfall total -- since July 1 -- to 13.92 inches. Normal season-to-date rainfall is just over 9 inches.

While the season total is above normal, rainfall since the first of the year is slightly below. Since Jan. 1, Fresno has had 5.76 inches of rain, just less than the 5.82 normal.

"Hopefully the next storm will make up for that," said Sanger, who said Fresno can expect about another half-inch of rain through Wednesday.

The storm left about 15,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers in Madera and Mariposa counties without power, utility spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said.

Most of the affected customers are in the foothill and mountain communities. About 5,570 customers in Oakhurst lost power, she said. By about 7 p.m. Monday, 1,200 Oakhurst customers remained without power.

An employee at the Pizza Factory on Highway 41 said the restaurant reopened about 5 p.m., but very few other neighboring businesses had opened.

In Fresno County -- mostly in outlying areas -- about 1,930 PG&E customers did not have power by 7 p.m. Monday, and 525 customers were without power in Yosemite National Park, she said.

PG&E crews were trying to restore power to customers, though the remoteness of some affected areas is a challenge, Liebelt said.

"We want to restore power before the next storm comes in, but that's not always possible," she said.

Sunday's storm caused flooding that closed roads and highways.

The California Highway Patrol escorted cars across the Grapevine section of Interstate 5 starting Sunday night before reopening for normal traffic about 9:30 a.m. Monday, said spokesman Axel Reyes.

The main road into the small west Fresno County town of Huron -- Highway 289, or Lassen Avenue -- remains impassable after flooding Sunday.

Continuing storms will prevent Caltrans crews from cleaning the roadway of silt and debris until next week, Caltrans spokesman Jose Camarena said. "Hopefully we'll have it reopened by March 30."

Yosemite National Park got about 31/2 feet of snow by Monday morning. All highways into Yosemite will remain closed this morning due to snow, ice, mudslides, fallen trees and downed power lines, and Highway 140 is closed outside the park from El Portal to Mid Pines.

Park spokeswoman Victoria Mates says crews worked until nightfall Monday on repairing downed power lines and clearing fallen trees from roads. Park officials will assess the highway conditions throughout the day.

In the mountains of Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties, the storm dumped about 40 inches of snowfall at the 7,000-foot level, the weather service said.

By Monday, the Sierra snowpack was 144% of average for this date, making it the best snowpack since 2006, when it was 130% of average. The Southern Sierra is 142% of average. China Peak reported about 3 feet of snow from Sunday to Monday.

Millerton Lake and Pine Flat Reservoir did not need to make flood releases on Sunday because water levels still were within safe limits, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the flood watchdog for the federal government.

But most major reservoirs in Northern California are releasing water to make room for storm runoff. They include Shasta, Oroville and Folsom.

Many water officials expect flood releases throughout the state by the week's end if storms continue.

Valley farmers say the rain has helped some and caused headaches for others.

Cattle ranchers welcomed the rain. The moisture helps grow native grasses in the foothills for grazing livestock.

But the rain has delayed the planting of cotton and stopped the harvesting of several crops, including vegetables and citrus fruit.

"We have a huge crop to move and the slowdown is not positive," said Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. "The fruit has good size, color and is eating well, and we are losing marketing opportunities."

Tree fruit farmers say it isn't the rain that they worry about, it's the hail. And pea-sized hail was reported in several pockets of Fresno County on Monday afternoon.

The reporter can be reached at plloyd@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6756. Please include a phone number.

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